As I sit here in a small internet cafe on a blustry Turkish day in the small coastal town of Bodrum, I find it hard to believe that I’m already celebrating my 28th birthday. I suppose it isn’t the most remarkable of birthdays. It’s not one that signifies becoming a man, earning new rights, or one of life’s cornerstones. Yet, this past year was one of my favorite so far.
At the risk of sounding like an overly optimistic braggart, I’ll confess that life is good. Or, if I throw modesty to the winds it would more accurately be described as spectacular!
At this time last year I had just returned from my introductory visit to Turkey. I was preparing to head to Italy where fantastic new opportunities and friends awaited. I was also finally getting settled and adjusting to life in Copenhagen. The remainder of the last 12 months saw me continue to fall madly, deeply, passionately, in love with Copenhagen. Bolstered by the support of my parents and brother, it also saw me visit Africa for the first time in the form of Zambia and Botswana, as well as a return to Asia by way of Dubai. Later we would pause in the Czech Republic, Germany, England and Scotland. I spent Halloween in Canada having just wrapped up a polar bear safari, and then prepared for the new year with a re-visit to Prague. The new year came and with it a quick trip up to Norway. Now, as I write this post, I’m on the tail-end of a trip to Austria where I learned to ski in the heart of the Alps and, a culinary and cultural meander through Turkey.
Each of these adventures provided fresh, exciting, and wonderful learning experiences. They fed my voracious appetite for new stimuli and a better understanding of the world. They were also largely made possible, either directly or indirectly, through the endless support of family, close friends, and you, my readers. It was one of my best travel years to date and it really pushed (and tore down) a lot of my old comfort boundaries. Last week I broke 500,000 views on youtube (thank you!). The website continues to perform well and I’ve been approached about a number of exciting opportunities which will help showcase VirtualWayfarer, my photography, my writing, and my videos. It is an exciting time with a lot of irons in the fire.
Beyond pure travel though, the year also brought challenges and change. I’m in the midst of finishing up my Masters degree and will be polishing off my thesis come August (assuming all goes according to plan). I’m very happy with my progress, the grades I’ve gotten as part of the program, and above all the wonderful experiences I’ve had while doing a two-year masters abroad. Still, it has been 21 months since the last time I was back in the US. That in and of itself poses a wealth of challenges. Over the past year we lost several extended family members and several close family friends. Those are always some of the most difficult moments while abroad. It is easy to beat yourself up for not being there or being able to return to say goodbye. They also make you wonder if you’re making a horrible mistake and doing a grave disservice to friends and loved ones by spending time so far away and apart. Luckily, Skype and Facebok help bridge that gap in a way that still amazes me. Not a week goes by that I don’t spend an hour or two in casual conversation with my folks and brother, despite the long distances between Zambia, Arizona, and Denmark.
Positive Choices and Perspective
This past year was possible because of decisions I made and priorities which I set and stuck to, despite significant challenges. I’ve chosen to keep my daily expenses low, not to adopt a dog or cat, and to avoid buying a house. At a certain level my tangible ties to a specific place and things are limited – something which is rewarding, but also has a certain cost to it and comes with a periodic sense of weariness and transience. I’ve had two succesful careers outside of my time spent as a student, but even those were selected, honed, and sustained only so long as they moved me in the general direction I have chosen for myself financially, intellectually, professionally, and personally.
What only a few select friends know and truly understand is just how difficult it can be for me to drive myself forward towards the goals I’ve set for myself. To overcome the doubts, the false turns, an inclination for stability, fear of the unknown, to face the profound weight of expectations, and then persevere.
The face many see is one of confidence. Of someone who unflinchingly tackles the unknown and the exotic. Who embraces new things and new challenges with a smile and a laugh, while leaving behind the stable and the comfortable again and again. Yet, beneath the confident image is a raging sea of uncertainty and discomfort. I am, by my very nature, a long-term thinker. I weigh potential benefits, and if left to act based on impulse, operate conservatively. I’m rarely reckless, and seldom completely impulsive. When I was younger, I suffered from a fairly strong case of social anxiety. It is something I’ve overcome and mostly conquered but, at times I still feel physically nauseous when preparing for important social events or acting outside my social comfort zone. It can still be so strong that I’ve been tempted to consider anti-anxiety medications and similar tools – but I’ve always come back to the same conclusion. It would treat the symptoms but do little to overcome the source or to help me truly move forward in my personal development. After all, discomfort is not necesarilly bad, and sometimes it is a strength. Part and parcel of that inclination towards conservative action is a strong desire not to come across as appearing silly or ignorant.
Perhaps that is why I find travel so addictive. It constantly forces me to push each of these boundaries and to become a stronger person. I still get slightly sick to my stomach before a long bus ride or flight. Figuring out public transportation in a new city is not only an exciting challenge to unravel, but also an unnerving one. Travel takes simple things that we are used to and familiar with – such as toilets and bathrooms – and turns them into new challenges. It provides new foods, new peoples, new languages, and new cultural norms. It also allows us access to new communities we have previously avoided or missed out on. Most recently, this was embodied by my trip to the Tirol region of Austria to learn how to ski. It took until I was 28 to learn, in no small part, because I was deeply anxious over my complete lack of knowledge and skill. Sure, there were plenty of excuses to justify the delay, but at the end of the day, it came down to a fear of the unknown, looking like a fool (even in front of complete strangers half a world away), and failing to perform at the level I expect of myself. As has happened so many times before, the fears I had built up in my head and the what-ifs were mostly hollow. Oh, sure, there were moments of embarassment as I had to ask basic questions and as I stumbled my way through the ski and spa culture. Challenges that included figuring out everything from what to tip my ski instructor to what (not to wear) and how to get comfortable (quickly) with sitting naked in a sauna across from a mixture of German and Austrian men and women.
As I reflect, this year has re-affirmed time and time again that it is all about moving forward. About constantly pushing the comfort zone, and re-visiting past successes. It’s not only a matter of pushing our personal comforts, it is a matter of re-visiting those new conquests until they become comfortable and burned into our muscle and conscious memory.
In my Ignite Phoenix talk a few years ago I told people to “Just Say Yes”. This is something that was re-affirmed in a major way once again this past year, but it is hard and seldom gets easier. It is a constant challenge and for every two uncomfortable YES!s I manage, there is at least one “No” or “Not Today” to go with it. Still, I consider myself a YES person, not an “If only…” person. The truth of it is that if you’re unhappy with (or merely content with) the opportunities life has presented you with, if you look at other people and dream of doing things they’re doing, or wonder what that life might be like – then you’re probably justifying inaction with excuses. While luck may exist, it is more often a matter of choice. Of not putting things off, or justifying passing on opportunities by qualifying everything with, “If only I…” or “If only it…”. The choices we make and the role of fear in shaping those choices is paramount to crafting who we are and who we want to become. We can justify inaction by looking at others and using their own success and appearance of confidence to justify our inaction or we can drive ourselves forward one small step at a time.
As I prepare for life after my Masters degree, which will entail a return to the corporate world, I know that I have to fix my end goals in mind’s-eye and then strive to work towards those goals while being very aware of how I may act (or fail to) in order to hedge my bets. It’s the small things – like failure to book a flight or to get paperwork filed before an application deadline that are fatal to our success and pushing our comfort zones – not big decisions.
This year has also led to conversations that have re-affirmed and helped me better formalize my understanding of the pressures that go with success. The truth is that the more success you enjoy, the greater the yoke of responsibility that comes with it. Years ago, one of my college suite-mates committed suicide. It was a shock, in no small part because he was profoundly succesful, both socially, academically, and within the local community. Despite being in the final stages of University, I remember noting that one of Arizona’s State Representatives was present and spoke at the funeral. His death, and others like it, have contantly reminded me that while we often look at our peers and those people we view as profoundly succesful, inspiring, and (perhaps) useful for a bit of introspective self intimidation, what we overlook is the unspoken pressure to perform that goes with success. My old suite-mate had one failiure that he felt so overwhelmed and doomed him, that he lost sight of all his other assets and successes. While his was an extreme case that resulted in extreme action, we all take similar, if greatly diluted, actions on a regular basis.
There is a deep fear of failure. To even admit its existance potentially shatters that image of confidence, success, and casual ease. As I push myself to succeed and I face the prospect of failure, I am constantly reminded of the lesson his actions taught me. I am reminded that failure, while daunting, is seldom half as uncomfortable as the fear of failure itself. I am reminded that to enjoy success and to grow as an individual, I have to come to terms with the challenges of failure, of external judgement, and of decisions and actions that may be the right course for me, but which may differ from those otherwise expected of me – be it by family, by friends, by culture, by work, or by social contract. I must also remember that inaction is often every bit as damning as a failed attempt. Luckily, this past year – as with those before it – has shown me that I won the familial lottery and have been blessed with incredibly supportive parents. That alone makes it much easier to push myself forward and develop as a man; to grow as an indivdual into who I choose to be – not what fear and failed opportunities leave me. It also makes it easier to be selective as I seek out the friends I choose as company and the people I surround myself with. People who inspire me, who drive me forward, and who challenge me. These are the foundations which sustain true success.
So, as I reflect on the past year, I invite you to join me in looking at your own lives, choices, fears, and the challenges that go with them. It need not be something as major as jumping out of an airplane, or catching the next flight to the most war-torn part of Africa. Instead, start simply and aim for repetition. Order something outside of what you would normally eat, take a public bus for the first time, or force yourself to ask a question or voice your ignorance when a topic arises that is beyond the scope of what you know now, at this moment. Read, research, and browse. Surely, the end result will be new perspective, new opportunities and new confidence. All of which will better prepare you to say YES the next time opportunity presents itself.
So, I leave you with these thoughts and a heartfelt thank you for your support, your wisdom, your knowledge, your curiosity, and for helping me challenge myself and mature. Each year, and each new experience, moves me closer towards who I want to be as an individual. Which is not to say I am not deeply happy with who I am now. Today. But, life is a process of continuing growth and for the chance to craft who we are into something even wiser and more capable.
Safe travels, open roads.